When “Culture Fit” is Code Word for Affinity Bias

davidlivermore | August 17th, 2018 No Comments

Guest Post By Dr. Sandra Upton

A few months back my colleague and friend, Dave Livermore, wrote an excellent article on cultural fit, which is the likelihood that a job candidate will be able to conform and adapt to the core values and collective behaviors that make up an organization. He provided some great insights on identifying culturally intelligent ways to balance adapting to the organizational culture and being yourself. I’d like to further explore this conversation from a slightly different perspective.

So here’s the question: what if “culture fit” really is code for “if you want to join or be successful in our organization, you need to think and act just like us (the dominant cultural group)”? This what is called Affinity Bias—the tendency to give preference to people like ourselves.

Every organization has a core set of values that guide how they operate and employees should be expected to share those values. But what are the consequences when those values leave no room for the values, identities, and perspectives of those outside of the dominant culture?

Harvard Business School Professor, Francesca Gino, has done fascinating research and work on the benefits of helping employees become rebels (in a good way!) inside their organizations. In her study of more than 2,000 employees across a wide range of industries, nearly half the respondents reported working in organizations where they regularly feel the need to conform. These organizations unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, urge employees to check a good chunk of their real selves at the door. When this happens both the employee and organization pay a price—which is manifested through decreased engagement, productivity, and innovation. To the contrary, employees who said they could express their authentic selves at work were more committed to their organizations, thus demonstrating higher levels of engagement, productivity, and innovation.

How To Tell The Difference

How do we know when our judgments and decisions genuinely support organizational values that benefit everyone versus those decisions and actions (conscious or unconscious) that favor the dominant culture? In most organizations, Affinity Bias shows up in one of three places in the organization: hiring, promoting, or day-to-day interactions. The consequences can include missing out on hiring a diverse and highly qualified candidate, promoting the most qualified person into a leadership position, or missing out on difference perspectives and innovative ideas in team meeting or on key projects.

Examples of what someone might think, hear, or say…

Hiring: “That first interviewee did a fantastic job! He reminds me so much of myself when I was younger. I think he’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

Promotion/Development: “I’m not sure she’s ready for a leadership position, she just doesn’t quite have the executive presence that I’m looking for and I’m not sure she’ll fit in with the other leaders.”

Day-To-Day: “We think so much alike, I want you working on this big project with me.”

If it is Affinity Bias, what can you do about it? Here are five specific ways to think about how to manage its effect in your organization. By the way, these strategies can also apply to many other forms of bias that show up in our organizations.

How Do We Manage Affinity Bias? 

  • Get out of denial. In a powerful TedTalk, Verna Meyers, a lawyer, activist, and diversity advisor, told the standing room only crowd that one of the first steps to managing our biases is admitting out loud that we have them and that they may be impacting our decisions and actions. It’s not rocket science, but it is truth—and it’s harder to do than most of us think. If our organizational culture is one where we aren’t even willing to create space for the discussion and admit that Affinity Bias may be influencing some of our decisions and actions, we just may be in denial.
  • Start at the top. If leadership isn’t committed to addressing bias in the work environment, your efforts quickly become an uphill battle. In addition, to manage unconscious bias at the organizational level there must be “demonstrated” leadership commitment. This means that leadership must not just say they are committed through verbal expressions and written diversity statements. They must take measurable steps towards the elimination of bias in the work environment. As a leader, you need to create a workplace culture that promotes employee well-being, creates opportunities for positive cross-cultural interactions, and develop policies, practices, and norms that serve as a benefit and not a barrier to embracing all cultural groups.
  • Manage Affinity Bias at all stages of the employee life cycle. This can feel like an overwhelming task and you may not even know where to start. Break down the process and consider it in the three phases highlighted in this article—hiring, promotion/development, and day-to-day. Ask yourself questions such as: Are our hiring policies and practices objective and consistent with all candidates? When promoting people is our criteria for “success” objective, or do certain cultural groups tend to benefit most from promotional opportunities? In day-to-day interactions, do we see certain cultural groups covering up parts of their identity in meetings, on projects, or just in conversations or cross-cultural engagements throughout the day.
  • Track and assess the data. The saying, “we measure what we value” is still true. Because unconscious bias can be so subtle and, well, unconscious, it can sometimes be difficult to quantify its effects. When accessing your efforts to manage bias, look at the hard facts. How diverse is your talent pool? Whose getting promoted? What cultural groups are absent? Why? If the data is revealing tendencies to hire and promote people who primarily reflect the dominant group or certain cultural groups, biases may be at play.
  • Solicit Feedback. Conduct an anonymous company-wide employee survey to understand what specific issues of hidden bias, microaggressions, and inequities might exist in your organization or institution. If you are a leader, solicit direct feedback from your team or colleagues.

Ultimately and most importantly, you must go beyond the unconscious bias conversation. Addressing it is important. In fact, understanding our biases and enhancing our cultural awareness are the critical first steps in the process of learning how to work effectively across cultures. However, awareness alone is no guarantee of success in our intercultural interactions. Not only do we need to go beyond awareness and build habits and behaviors that will help mitigate the impact of unconscious biases, we need to develop our cultural intelligence (CQ). When awareness of these biases and behaviors is coupled with CQ, new habits and behaviors predict intercultural performance.

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